Knocking Stones of Mid Argyll : Part 2

Following on from Knocking Stones In Mid Argyll – Part One which described the Rock Art Project. Thank you to The Kist: Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Mid Argyll

By Bernie Bell

Having received the most recent edition of ‘Kist’, the journal of the Kilmartin Glen Museum , and read the articles with interest, two in particular stood out, for me, as possibly being of interest to ‘Orkney News’ readers, as Orkney is such a place for interesting stones.

I checked with the Museum that it would be OK for me to share these articles,  and the very helpful lady there, sent me them, all formatted and ready.  So, here they are – much of interest – as always from ’Kist’……………..

By Dave & Pat Batty

In the process of locating and exploring a number of deserted settlements in Mid Argyll, we have come upon several unusual rock basins at three sites and seen some in other situations.  On showing photographs to Roddy Regan, he identified them as knocking stones.  Knocking stones or ‘knockin’ stanes’ are mortars and were used with a rounded stone or wooden mell throughout the Highlands to knock the husks off grain, usually barley.  Kahane (2001), in an article about corn drying kilns, mentions knocking stones and states they were ‘a small circular basin ground out of a large boulder, or occasionally out of a nearby rock surface’ and were ‘used to catch the ears of corn as they are knocked off the head of a sheaf.’ They went out of general use in the early 1700s but remained in use until the 19th century in the Highlands and Islands.

The term knocking stone is also used as a generic one relating to any stone cut basin, either free standing or in natural rock outcrops, used for bait mortars for fishing, religious connections, good luck artefacts, etc.  There are a number of different types of stone cut basins found in Mid Argyll and elsewhere in Argyll.

The three deserted settlement sites were Achayerran (north of Kilbride Farm), Ardnoe (east of Castle Dounie) and Barnashalag (northwest of the ruined Barnashalag Farm).  At all three sites the knocking stones were situated at the corner of a ruined building, flat and the right way up.  They were all uncovered and full of water.  The two stones at Ardnoe and Barnashalag were round and very similar in shape and size with bevelled sides but the one at Achayerran was rectangular with a flat surface.  In all three stones the central hole was almost circular, with smooth sides and a flat or rounded bottom.

The Ardnoe (NR77499349) stone is roughly square but with a curve for about a quarter of its edge.  It is located on the north east corner of a building not far away from a substantial house and is partially buried in the vegetation.  The stone is massive, being 1.30m x 1.08m.  The hole is almost round, 28cm x 24cm and 13cm deep with a rounded bottom.  The stone is 35cm thick at its thickest point but along the curved edge the side is vertical in part and bevelled to the edge for the rest of the curve. The other sides were more or less straight and looked as if they were broken edges of a bigger stone.   The stone is a separate piece of rock and has been placed there in a horizontal position.  It is composed of Crinan grits.  There were no other similar stones in the vicinity of the settlement.   Above the deserted settlement is a ridge whose topography is hidden by dense, tall conifers.  Moving such a large stone would have been easier downhill and we wonder whether there was a small quarry on the ridge.  Intriguingly the stone has the look of a partially hewn millstone that broke during production.

The Barnashalag stone resembles the one at Ardnoe.  It is also a massive slab of Crinan grits and is situated (NR72988684) some 4m from the north east corner of a building.  It is on the nearest flat ground to the building and is partially buried in the vegetation and was being overgrown with grass. The stone shape is roughly semi-circular with part of the edge curved with the stone angling down to it.  One side has a vertical edge.  The stone is 1.75m x 1.02m and is 45cm at its thickest (tapering to 25cm on the curved edge).  The hole is almost circular, 24cm x 24cm, and 18cm deep with a slightly rounded base.  The top of the stone was not as flat as the one at Ardnoe.  The stone appeared to be a separate slab as the bottom edge could be found for most of its length.  There were no other large similar stones/slabs or any other large stones in the vicinity.

The Achayerran stone (NR854977) was rectangular in shape, c.60cm x c.40cm and at least 25cm thick, and was partially buried in the turf.  The central hole was c.25cm in diameter and was c.16cm deep.  It was slightly sloped at the top on one side. The rock appeared to be a piece of Crinan grits not unlike blocks in the wall of the adjacent building.  Begg (2002) from a visit to Achayerran noted an old quern outside one of the buildings.  This is likely to be the same stone.

The making of the holes would have involved considerable work especially to have the smooth sides and bottom.  Having done that it is not clear why in two of the stones extra work was carried out to make the bevelled edges nor why large stones should be required.  They would not have been easy to move.  However at Achayerran a smaller, relatively portable, stone was used, so why were similar large blocks like the corner stones of buildings not utilised at the other sites?

Being outside they were obviously not being used for their original purpose (but two are so big they would not have been easily moved and would have occupied lot of space inside a building) and were perhaps there as water bowls for hens.

The Barnashalag and Ardnoe stones are located on the northeast corner of a building and at the left handside of the door as you look at the building.  At Achayerran the stone is at the southwest corner of a building.  It cannot be coincidence that two large stones just happened to be at the same place in relation to the buildings and had a similar look.  It is likely that they were deliberately moved to their present horizontal position.

Kahane (2001) has a drawing of a knocking stone at Old Achnaba and stated that there was one by Kilmartin churchyard.  The one at Kilmartin churchyard is still extant and is located on the outside of the wall between two seats on the edge of the village green.  It is very similar to the one at Achayerran and is a rectangular block of Crinan grits.  It is 1.04m x 0.55m and 0.25m thick.  The hole is circular, 25cm x 25cm, and is c.23cm deep with smooth sides and a rounded bottom.  It is similar to the one from Achayerran.  Kahane (2001) did not know from which deserted settlement it originated.

Achnaba deserted settlement (NR 893871) which was assumed to be Kahane’s Old Achnaba was visited on 8 November 2018 to search for the knocking stone.  The settlement is large but is becoming overgrown in places and despite extensive searching no sign of the knocking stone was found.

Regan (2005) recorded the stone at Ardnoe as a stone basin, 18cm diameter and 12cm deep, cut into a natural boulder.  He considered it a mortar or ‘cartogan’.  Regan and Webb (2007) list several rock cut basins and imply they are in natural outcrops with many lying close to settlement sites.  They might have their origin for agricultural usage as knocking stones.  They recorded a basin at Knockalva (NR9174296975) of 25cm diameter and 28cm deep with sides sloping towards a slightly rounded base.  Another basin was at Dippen (NR8798089960) of 30cm diameter and 17cm deep, again with sides sloping to a rounded base.  These rock cut basins seem different to the free lying stones described here found next to buildings in deserted settlements.

Other knocking stones found elsewhere in Scotland have a similar sized hole, c.20-25 wide and c.15 cm deep, but appear to be more like the ones at Achayerran and Kilmartin (Omond, 1911).  The only one like the Ardnoe and Barnashalag examples is near Saughtree (NR56199961) in the Scottish Borders lying on a hillside near a sheiling settlement.  It measures 125cm x 65cm and 30cm thick with a 25cm diameter hole.  It is a large rounded rock.  It is marked on the first edition OS map as a Knocking Stone.

The stones were all found outside buildings.  Whilst the one at Achayerran is portable (and also the ones at Kilmartin and Old Achnaba) the ones at Ardnoe and Barnashalag are large boulders and once positioned would not have been moved.  The basins would have filled with rain and collected debris and thus would either have been covered over or been cleaned out and dried before each use.

Whilst on a visit to Kilmichael of Inverlussa churchyard on 25 February 2019 what was assumed to be a knocking stone with a ‘lid’ was noticed by the side of the church door.  The stone itself was rectangular in shape with rounded corners and dimensions of 50cm x 30cm.  The basin was full of debris and stones but when cleaned out was 25cm in diameter and 15-17cm deep with a slightly rounded bottom.  The stone had a small depression (a tiny cupmark?) that seemed manmade towards one corner.   The stone was portable.  The lid was round and flat sided but broken into two pieces with a small piece missing.    It was c.35cm in diameter and has a small hole in the centre.

We informed Roddy Regan of Kilmartin Museum who considered the lid to be the top part of a rotary quern and who suggested the lower stone was possibly a bullaun stone, as they are called in Ireland.  These stones are found on sites with some religious associations and may have been used for washing hands or feet before entering the church.  There are the ruins of an old chapel and burial ground not far from the church at NR777862 and a well, Tobar an-t-Sagairt, nearby at NR777861.  So it is possible that this bullaun stone was transferred from there to the church at some point.  However, photographs of Irish bullaun stones on the internet show a wide range of sizes and shapes, some of which are like the ones mentioned here.  It seems that the terms ‘knocking stane’ in Scotland and ‘bullaun stone’ in Ireland are generic names for almost any stone with a rock cut basin of some kind.

We wish to thank Roddy Regan for his help, information and for furthering our understanding of these enigmatic stone artefacts, as well interesting us in deserted settlements.


Begg, A. (2002)Deserted Settlements of Glassary Parish Argyll and Bute Library Service

Kahane, A. (2001) Corn drying kilns. The Kist 61: 1-4.

Omond, J. (1911) Orkney 80 years Ago. Orkney

Regan, R. (2005) North Knapdale Forestry Commission: An Archaeological Survey. Kilmartin Archaeological Research Report

Regan, R. & Webb, S. (2007) Kilmichael, Kilmory, Ardcastle and Minard Forests: An Archaeological Survey. Kilmartin Archaeological Research Report

Part 3 to follow tomorrow


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